Google sharpens search results for ‘skin rash,’ ‘tummy ache’ and other symptoms

Google has a health problem. Its search results for medical symptoms aren’t very useful at best, and in many cases are alarmingly off base, frustrating patients and doctors alike.

The Alphabet Inc.-owned search giant says it has developed a cure. On Monday, it rolled out a new feature called symptom search.

The next time you use the Google search app for iPhone and Android to look up something like “my tummy hurts,” “skin rash,” or “headache on one side,” you’ll see about a half-dozen digital cards you can swipe through right below the search box. Each of these cards briefly describes a common health problem related to your search term.

Google worked with Harvard Medical School and the Mayo Clinic to build the symptom search cards. Where possible, the cards will mention whether self-treatment options are available, or whether a related health problem is serious enough to warrant professional medical care. Beneath the cards, you’ll see the same old list of website links—helpful or unhelpful as they may be.

“Before symptom search, you really had to know the exact name of what you were looking for to find the best health information,” said Veronica Pinchin, a product manager on Google’s search team. “It was difficult to stumble on the right condition.”

The internet is filled with inaccurate medical advice, and busy doctors often encounter needlessly worried patients, says Seth Martin, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and a practicing cardiologist.

“We’ve all had the experience where people come in with information they found online and it’s been way off,” says Dr. Martin, who isn’t affiliated with Google’s new initiative. “When that happens, it’s an uphill climb to get patients back to an accurate understanding of what’s going on.”

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